Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Critiquing the critics

It was just a matter of time until the academic liturgical establishment took notice. Reforming the Liturgy: A Response to the Critics is a recent title from Liturgical Press (Collegeville, MN). (See the recent post in which this book is mentioned.) Its author, John F. Baldovin, S.J. (Boston College), has "tried to listen to the many voices that in various ways have criticized the Vatican II liturgical reform," and expresses his hope that he has "treated them with the respect they deserve" (p. 156). He has indeed. This is no scathing attack on the critics of the reform, but a soberly critical (and at times even sympathetic) look at the big tent known as the new liturgical movement.


The first four chapters outline the philosophical, historical, theological, and anthropological approaches taken by the critics of the reform. The rest of the book focuses on the issues arising from these approaches: liturgical language, music, orientation, architecture, and finally Summorum Pontificum of 2007. His treatment of Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI's contribution to the debate is, as Bill O'Reilly would put it, "fair and balanced." To wit: "Ratzinger has no desire to return simply to the pre-Vatican II liturgy. He certainly appreciates the Liturgy of the Word in the language of the people and is critical of the 'Tridentines' who want to freeze the liturgy of the sixteenth century. At the same time he criticizes the Missal of Paul VI (1970) as a creation of professors rather than a liturgy that grew organically out of praying communities" (pp. 79-80).

Father Baldovin nicely captures the typology of the new liturgical movement, distinguishing the "reform of the reform" agenda from that of "recatholicizing the reform." Both camps recognize that the pre-Vatican II liturgy needed reform (to be fair, so do many traditionalists) and that the postconciliar reform yielded some good fruits; but whereas the reformers of the reform advocate a revision of the novus ordo liturgical books in order to establish greater continuity with the usus antiquior of the Roman Rite (Baldovin enumerates the various proposals found in the appendices of my 2003 book, The Reform of the Reform?), the recatholicizers (as represented, for example, by Msgr. M. Francis Mannion) are primarily committed to "a deepening of the spirit of the liturgy, the inculcation of a liturgical spirituality" (p. 8) rather than rewriting the liturgical books. The author's own views, he admits (p. 135), come closest to those of the latter group: the major issue is not structural revision but the need to understand the liturgy as primarily God's work.

In his response to the critics of the reform, Baldovin cautions against making too much of the principle of organic development:

Understanding liturgy by way of biological metaphors clearly has limits. The liturgy is not an organism in the same way that a plant or animal is. The question really comes down to the nature of tradition. Is it possible to see a misguided trajectory in certain of the developments, e.g., the silent recitation of the Canon of the Mass, infrequency of reception of holy communion, the retention of Latin? To capitalize on the biological metaphor, is it not possible or necessary that broken limbs must be reset to become useful again to the whole organism? (p. 6).

One might counter that resetting broken limbs is precisely what the reform of the reform is about. And of course, just how much is "too much" is open to debate. The context of the above passage is a treatment of Dr Alcuin Reid's thesis on the development of the Roman liturgy up to Vatican II; in my opinion, Baldovin wrongly ascribes to Reid (and Msgr. Gamber) the same romantic view of the older liturgy that many traditionalists seem to hold. Devotion to the traditional rites does not necessarily betray disdain for the ideals of the classical Liturgical Movement.

Then there is this caveat against comparing apples to oranges:

[I]t is very important when comparing the pre- and post-Vatican II liturgy to try to make the comparison as fair as possible. Of course one can easily see the flaws in a fifteen-minute pre-Vatican II Low Mass said entirely in Latin when compared to a carefully prepared post-Vatican II eucharistic liturgy in which all the proper ministerial roles have been employed and the people have learned to participate with mind, heart, voice, and body. At the same time it is easy to ridicule a poorly prepared, self-congratulatory post-Vatican II liturgy in which very few participate actively when compared to a beautifully sung and aesthetically powerful example of a pre-Vatican II Solemn High Mass. All too often that is the level at which comparisons are made. (pp. 156-57)

That Baldovin would refer to the extraordinary form as "Mass" and the ordinary form as the "eucharistic liturgy" is not insignificant: discontinuity has been the name of the game for some time. More important than a hermeneutic of continuity is "the painstaking and patient work of translating and creating texts and fashioning and preparing liturgical services that truly nourish the people of God today" (p. 157). Liturgical fabrication arising from pastoral necessity: Sounds familiar? To make the principle of organic development the supreme criterion of liturgical reform is to idolize tradition, so Baldovin suggests. Vatican II, he says, was "a change in Roman Catholicism that transcends the documents themselves" (p. 12).

When he does register personal disapproval of certain aspects of the reform, it is usually along the lines taken by the French historian and specialist in Gregorian chant, Denis Crouan, author of The Liturgy Betrayed (Ignatius, 2000): there is nothing inherently problematic about the reform; rather, the reform was poorly implemented. (But then, if the "spirit of Vatican II" transcends the documents, as Baldovin says, what standard is there for judging whether or not the reform was implemented well?) Baldovin will have no truck with the likes of Msgr Klaus Gamber, Alcuin Reid, Fr Aidan Nichols, Laszlo Dobszay, and Yours Truly. For him, there can be no "going back" of any sort. Even a general return to celebrations ad orientem is inadvisable: Does the cosmic symbolism of the East (the rising sun) make much sense in a world flooded with artificial light? Can it be that the "turning of the altars" was accepted so quickly precisely because of the chief accomplishment of the reform, namely, the recovery of a corporate sense of worship?

Although I disagree with Baldovin's contention that it will do no good to try to retrieve certain elements of the tradition (even if they were unwarrantedly abandoned), I nonetheless recommend Reforming the Liturgy for the way it presents the substance of the various critiques launched against the postconciliar liturgy as a whole. And it's always good to know what those on the other side of the aisle (or liturgical spectrum) are saying about "us." While the author is very much at home with the revised liturgy and its development since 1970, his tone is respectful and non-polemical. "I would not have written this book," says Baldovin, "if I had thought the critics had nothing to offer" (p. 12). And he recognizes that the critics "have the good of God's people at heart" (p. 156). This is a far cry from the unreflective condescension that has characterized the liturgical guild for so long.